The Necessity of Narrative, or, Jorie Graham as Historiographer

When was the last time you took a really, really long drive? The kind for which you psych yourself up, orchestrating strategically timed distractions: mix tapes, playlists, rest stops, underwhelming roadside “attractions,” and forced meals. And don’t you always, way sooner than expected, crack? The geography levels you, flattens you, incorporates you into its own inert meaninglessness. You want nothing more than to escape the infinite corn fields, to bypass the columns of scarecrow-bare, damp-dark trees that you can’t decide are dead or alive, or to flee the green expanses that drift into the generically named -villes, -burgs, and -towns that comprise a rural vastness you inwardly wish would be paved and gentrified. But, you tell yourself, at least you’re that much closer to your destination. It’s “the sense of an ending” (to borrow the title of a poem by Jorie Graham) that makes your journey tolerable and worthwhile.

Now, imagine a different kind of drive, one with no destination. Imagine an eternity – sitting: a ceaseless combination of lefts and rights. It would be hell. Now, if you just take away the car (and perhaps replace it with the couch), the situation is still the same: no obstacles, no plots, no end-points. You’d find yourself inventing goals, anything to coarsen your frictionless passage through time. On a selective reading of Jorie Graham’s poetry, it is this very personal and even cultural anxiety toward openness, timelessness, and formlessness that defines our current historical situation – a zeitgeist that she bravely investigates, including its utopian origins and its unanticipated aesthetic and moral consequences. 

Historically, this anxiety vis-a-vis time is quite new. In sync with the rhythms of nature, pagan and Oriental societies held a cyclical view of time. With Christianity, the West’s view of temporality changed; it became linear, but nevertheless teleological in light of the never-too-far-off Apocalypse. This narratological view of history even endured in certain strands of the Enlightenment, culminating in Marx’s prediction of a final reckoning between owners and workers and the cessation of class struggle – the engine of history. Thus, when liberal democracy and free markets triumphed over Really Existing Socialism in 1991, Francis Fukuyama famously heralded this moment as the “end of history.”

With the liberation of the individualistic homo economicus came the obsolescence of all forms of collective destinies, religious or secular, and teleology was replaced by what Hayden White has dubbed the “liberal-bourgeois myth of changelessness,” or what, more tellingly, postmodern philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard called the collapse of “grand narratives” about human history.

It is in this light that we should read the poet Jorie Graham as a historiographer, especially in her dialectical treatment of narrative and aclosural temporality in Erosion (1983), The End of Beauty (1987), and Region of Unlikeness (1991), three collections that timely anticipate the possibility of a future-without-a-future.

Graham’s earlier poems long for a freedom outside of the rigid confines of narrative and the foreclosure of possibility. In these works, cages ominously “click” shut, disparate elements are violently “stitched” together, and the tight confines of a bathroom (a “chamber”) are likened to a scene in a Nazi extermination camp, one of the many sites of the terrible Endlösung (“final solution”), where a girl is raped and returned to the gas chamber. At the conclusion of “From the New World,” Graham superimposes these two scenes and places them inside the bathroom, where the victims have “the ending / wrapped around them.” Graham uses her short, crafted, refined sentences here to draw a connection between aesthetic, personal, and historical closure. The results are claustrophobia and catastrophe. And if narrative is aesthetically confining and socially disastrous, then, she implies, artistic, personal, and even historical freedom can be found outside its limits.

However, as critic James Longenbach cogently demonstrates, Graham’s occasional flirtation with aesthetic liberalism in several poems in The End of Beauty produces a horrific insight of its own. Like our aimless driver, the Persephone in “Self-Portrait as Demeter and Persephone” finds herself in a totally formless, shapeless environment, without any kind of destiny or physical or temporal resistance against which she can define herself. The operative aesthetic element that produces this vertiginous effect is an absence of punctuation – a kind of grammatical formlessness:

She reached in what is it begins at the end she thought
Where is the skin of the minutes will it ever come off
She reached in there was no underneath what was this coiling over her fingers
She reached in she could go no further she was sealed off
It pushed back against her it was hell she could finally lean
It was the given and it was finally given

Persephone finds herself “reaching” for some kind physical marker (an “underneath”), finally finding relief when she is “given” the gift of being pushed back. She discovers that what lies outside form and narrative – the narrative that produces imperialism, “manifest destiny,” and other “eschatological thinking” – is not liberating after all, but disorienting and hellish.

It is for this reason that in Materialism (1993), Graham, according to Longenbach, “give[s] up the dream of openness” and recognizes that it only within the realm of of “woefully constricted world” of narrative and fixed laws that meaning can be created and sustained. Instead of pursuing temporality, she switches, as Fredric Jameson anticipated in his diagnosis of postmodernism, to an investigation of spatiality. It her more contemporary work, the tension between closure and openness is diminished, and the creation of meaning revolves around the interior-exterior axis – the trained ability to personalize the Real, to draw it in and “try to make it mine.”

Graham’s “self-portrait” poems expertly forecast the personal and historical anxieties that accompany this disappearance of the narrative mode and the rise of postmodern gimmicks. Instead of a fascination with epics, Aristotelian drama, and other kinds of narrative entertainment, popular culture is much more preoccupied with what Fredric Jameson has called ‘cognitive mapping.’ Rather than following the well-worn trails of the plot (rising action, climax, falling action, resolution), characters work together to find their place in a strange or unknown world. In Present Shock, David Rushikoff cites Lost and Heroes as two leading examples. Another popular substitute for narrative is the rise of TV shows like Family Guy and Beavis and Butthead, where the abundance clever cultural references displaces any semblance of a plot.

Cultural anti-narrativism also shows up in the parade of random images that is the pictorial or video montage we know so well from the movie preview, the sports broadcast, and the TV commercial. Symptomatic of the cultural embeddedness of anti-narrativism is postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida’s confession that he was totally incapable of telling a story.

As Graham implies, this changing aesthetic attitude away from narrative and closure is not without its analogical consequences: she would likely agree with Aristotle that “when the storytelling in a culture goes bad, the result is decadence.” The ubiquity of cynicism, aimlessness, anxiety, and depression in the United States are further symptoms of the prevalence of anti-narrativism, as without the confines of narrative – the forward propulsion of the struggle and the achievement of a pre-established goal – we enter a version of the hell experienced by Persephone.

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About Andrew Gripp

Andrew Gripp received a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Delaware and an M.A. from Georgetown University, specializing in Democracy and Governance. His interests include U.S. and international politics, moral and political philosophy, science and religion, and literature. You can find him on Twitter @andrewgripp.
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